RIENDS OFTEN ASK me how I am able to write something here every week. I tell them that I am emotionally needy and that I seek affirmation on the Internet (just kidding of course.) Musicians want to be liked. We naturally want to make others happy so that in turn we are liked and praised. When people don’t like our music, it is incontrovertible that they lack good taste! (A friend refers to this attitude as the “tyranny of competence.”)
Truthfully, most people experience music through the lens of passive emotional stimulation. (This is not a judgment.) It is also possible, and perhaps preferable, to arrive at music through virtue. For example, it takes effort to listen to Bach’s B minor Mass, but an effort that is well worth it.
Furthermore, successful musicians are highly disciplined. It is not easy practicing the organ 4-5 hours a day in a 55-degree church in the winter or in a 95-degree church during the summer. It is not easy for a choir to not only learn their parts but to listen to each other and sing as one voice. It is not easy for a congregation to listen attentively week after week so that they may absorb, sing, and therefore pray the Word of God. Whether listening or performing, one is not passive, but fully engaged and fully active. Arrived at through virtue, music takes on even greater meaning.
NE MUST BE THICK SKINNED TO BE A MUSICIAN, especially in the Church. In an entitlement society, music is just another item in a long list of things that we “consume” even in corporate prayer. Therefore, musicians are inevitably on the receiving end of contradictory requests. “I want more of this (or that) because it speaks to me.” Such requests are probably not intended to be selfish. However, it must be charitably pointed out that what speaks to one individual may not speak at all to another. (An extremely poignant discussion on this topic by Jonathan Aigner on his blog Ponder Anew: Does the Church Idolize Music?)
Of course, this is not the point of music in worship – to make individuals or even the Music Director happy. In the Roman Rite, music is not merely important. Gregorian Chant and the propers grew up side by side with the Roman Rite. Therefore, music is at the very service of worship with Christ at the center—not us. Sacred music is intended to help us pray the words of the mass, and as such, pray the words of scripture. Sacred music is not simply an emotional stimulant designed for instant gratification, entertainment or sentiment. It is a means for prayer—for sanctification. It is also worth remembering, our prayers are not always answered immediately, but God is always listening to our prayer in song. Music practiced as such is a virtue.
ACRED MUSIC MUST BE BEAUTIFUL and done well. Certainly, we hope to please many who pray with it. But it is easy to get burnt out when dealing with pressures of competing “styles” of worship. Despite this, I find it important to retain a sense of gratitude. Fr. James Keenan, S. J. recently pointed out that we often arrive at gratitude through an emotional feeling. But he reminded us that gratitude is also a virtue. Even when mired in struggle, misunderstanding, and difficulty, we are fortunate to be part of this struggle. Much good will come of it, including a closer relationship with God. This alone will bring us true and lasting happiness.